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Loan program targets state’s dentistry students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In 2011, 48 students graduated from West Virginia University's School of Dentistry, the only dentistry school in the state. Only six decided to practice in West Virginia, according to school records.

It's the culmination of a trend the school has noticed during the past five years: of the 189 graduates between 2007 and 2010, 75 chose to stay in state.

With more than 35 percent of the state's current dentists expected to retire in the next decade, school and state officials hope a new program will encourage more graduates to stay in West Virginia.

"We couldn't compete with other states in retention programs," said Dr. Jason Roush, West Virgnia state dental director. "So we were losing a lot of our dental graduates to North Carolina and other surrounding states."

Last Thursday, Roush and WVU officials announced the creation of a new federally funded program that will offer loan reimbursement to five students who commit to practicing in West Virginia. The Dental Workforce Loan Reimbursement program will provide up to $50,000 over the course of two years to students who practice in one of the state's shortage areas.

At least 20 percent of the patients at those practices must be Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program patients, and the practice must offer service 32 to 40 hours per week, according to a news release.  

There are actually quite a few dentists in West Virginia, Roush said. They're clumped together in areas with larger populations, though, leaving some rural or smaller communities with access issues. To use these funds, Roush said students will need to go to one of these underserved areas.

That might not sound enticing to some, but School of Dentistry Dean Dr. David Felton pointed out the average debt for a dentistry graduate is close to $150,000.   

"The issue is we train the students to be good clinical dentists but they are so indebted that they can't afford to set up in a rural area," Felton said.

Even though the average dentist in West Virginia earns about $150,000 annually, Felton said the cost of opening a dental practice can approach a quarter million dollars. For a new dentist without an established client base, such financial assistance could be just what the state needs.

The federal Health Resources and Services Administration is providing $1.5 million for the three-year program. Roush and Felton are looking at it as a pilot program, and hope they are able to recruit and retain students who were not going to remain in West Virginia with or without the assistance.  

"Even if they were going to stay in the state, the question is really how many of those people would have chosen to work in an underserved area," Felton said.

Just because an area is rural does not mean a dentist won't have success, Roush said. He hopes communities in need will also buy into this program to improve oral health while creating great opportunities for young dentists.  

"If you're the only guy in town, you would naturally think you would be successful," Roush said. "Just because you practice in Charleston, (it) doesn't mean you're going to make more money than someone working in Logan or Chapmanville."

Although students can opt to go into the program for one year and receive $25,000 of relief, Roush and Felton said priority would be given to those who commit for two years. There are other similar federal programs that students could apply for after those two years, which Roush and Felton said could provide an additional $90,000 in debt relief.

The program is about more than paying off student loans though. It's about encouraging dentists to stay in West Virginia and serve a population that is in need, both Roush and Felton said.

"We want to get these students in. We want these communities to really sell themselves," Roush said, adding there are plenty of opportunities in the state for dentists to excel. "Ultimately we want the dentists to stay there."

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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